I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The motion is in the name of the Independent group and will be moved by Senator Zappone.
Seanad Reform: Motion
That Seanad Éireann, in light of the commitment in the programme for Government to overhaul the way politics and Government works, recognises the need for change in how it conducts its business and agrees to:
put in place arrangements so that this House can engage directly with well-informed citizens and residents from all walks of life whose experience and expertise can contribute to debates on issues of public importance thereby adding considerable value to our work as legislators;
invite to the floor of Seanad Éireann, on a case by case and ongoing basis, appropriate leaders and representatives of civic life who have a significant contribution to make to the deliberations of this House; and
include in these arrangements the hosting of respectful North-South dialogue that consolidates the peace process in Northern Ireland, develops a peace dividend for all communities affected by the conflict, deepens cross-Border relationships and promotes a shared approach to the significant centenaries that will arise in the next decade.
The Independent group puts forward this motion for the 24th Seanad which relates to the manner in which some aspects of business could be conducted in the House. The programme for Government commits to overhauling the way politics and Government works, and this is the context of the motion. We believe acceptance of the motion will further both the relevance and rightness of what we do.
The motion seeks agreement on three actions. The first is to arrange the direct engagement of the House with informed citizens and residents because they have value to add to our work as legislators. They could brief the Seanad about the efforts they are making to solve problems and to make business, family, cultural and community life as good as they can be.
Our second proposal is to invite appropriate leaders and representatives of civic life to the Seanad floor to participate in our deliberations. Third, we propose to host respectful North-South dialogue as part of these arrangements in order to support the consolidation of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
As proposer of the motion, I will now set out our rationale for supporting it, after which my colleague, Senator Mac Conghail, will second the motion in light of his distinctive experiences and reflections. First, these proposals will improve the quality and ethical tenor of our legislative scrutiny. We wish to open our space to others because, by this simple act, we increase our connection to the people. Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate, political philosopher and global economist, writes extensively about the proper conduct of public affairs. In his latest book, The Idea of Justice, he argues that the pronouncement of lawmakers must survive open and informed scrutiny and that we should come to issues with an open impartiality in order that we can take part in an interactive process of critical scrutiny, open to arguments from others and sensitive to the relevant information that can be obtained.
By attentively listening to the diverse perspectives of future guests there is the potential that they will shape and inform our own perspectives and judgments and, in certain cases, influence the outcomes of our deliberations. The Seanad should also take the courageous decision to convene outside the confines of this Chamber. We could take the Seanad to the people and offer an opportunity for communities to explain and showcase their activities in the comfort of their local halls and community centres. There could indeed be rich conversations through such a unique and real connection.
Second, the actions we propose push out the boundaries of how we can practise democracy. These boundaries must be widened if we are to rebuild Ireland. We have just heard some excellent recommendations in the course of the last debate in terms of how necessary it is to rebuild this country. The 2004 report on Seanad reform recommends a "formal system" of public consultation to be put in place to allow for "consultation with interested groups and individuals early in the legislative process". The report correctly notes that this would give real meaning to the concept of participative democracy. Our motion offers resonance with these views, but it goes one step further into the realm of deliberative democracy, a form of democracy in which public deliberation is central to legitimate lawmaking. Public deliberation is a process of thoughtfully weighing options, discussing and considering all sides of an issue with the public prior to making judgment, law or policy. Jürgen Habermas, a prominent proponent of this type of democracy, speaks often of the need for communicative competence in such public deliberations.
A third consideration is how this type of politics can move us beyond interest-driven groups lobbying for resources or competing for advantages towards a practice of fair exchange between diverse perspectives in order to arrive at right and just conclusions. However, the justice of these decisions depends on mechanisms which open up decision-making assemblies so that a diversity of voices is heard and in order that those affected by the decisions get the chance to have their voices heard and to agree or disagree with the decision-makers. Consequently, our motion advocates genuine exchange as distinct from a traditional form of consultation between citizens, residents and lawmakers.
This is the rationale for putting forward the specific recommendation that appropriate leaders and representatives of civic life come to the floor of Seanad Éireann, to the whole assembly of Senators, in addition to inviting them to our community committees. My colleague, Senator McAleese, has already referred to the transformative power of dialogue and ideas, with special reference to consolidating the peace process in Northern Ireland. We wish to ensure that such power is available to us in this Chamber. Senator McAleese will share more of his thoughts in this regard presently. It is for these reasons that I commend the motion to the House.
I second the motion. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Is é seo an chéad uair dom labhairt mar Sheanadóir. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le mo chlann agus, dar ndóigh, an Taoiseach, as ucht mé a ainmniú. Gabhaim buíochas freisin le gach Seanadóir a thug comhairle agus cúnamh dom i rith mo chéad cúpla lá.
As this is my maiden speech, I take the opportunity to acknowledge my gratitude to the Taoiseach for offering me the privilege and responsibility of participating in the Upper House. It is an honour for me and my family and also for my community, namely, the arts and cultural sector. The last director of the Abbey Theatre to become a Senator was W. B. Yeats in the 1920s. I am not claiming to be a Nobel laureate, but I accept this honour with humility and commitment on behalf of our national theatre.
I have also been involved in two recent citizens initiatives, namely, the National Campaign for the Arts and We the Citizens. What has struck me is how we have become disconnected from one another in our efforts to make our society a better place in which to live. The need to become better and more active citizens is what motivated artists and community leaders at the turn of the 20th century when many civil society groups came together to make sense of the world and to seek a clearer identity for ourselves. It was at this time that poets, trade unionists, teachers, politicians and soldiers — men and women — engaged in the great lockout of 1913, the foundation of the GAA, Cumann na mBan, the Gaelic League, the foundation of the Abbey Theatre, the Easter Rising of 1916 and many other social and cultural events and organisations.
We must reignite that spirit, and the Seanad can play an innovative role in this. I am proud to make my first contribution in the House on a matter of change and innovation as set out in the motion proposed by my colleague, Senator Zappone. I have Senator Leyden to thank for highlighting on our first day in the House the report on Seanad reform published by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges in 2004. This document makes a great deal of sense and shows that the mood for change is not recent. We all know that change can be a difficult concept to grasp and handle. My new role as Senator fills me with a mixture of pride, fear and the pressure of responsibility. However, change is what we must do, and that was a common theme of many of the Senators who spoke on the first day.
In my world of theatre we are constantly changing and innovating, partly because artists and playwrights provide us with the challenge of new ideas and new ways of telling our story. In addition, our audiences can tell us what they want or think and a dialogue can emerge over time that is productive and mutually beneficial. We are constantly on show. Seanad Éireann must prove itself by auditioning publicly in the forthcoming term to convince the public of its value and relevance.
I have been involved in a new national and non-party political initiative, We the Citizens, which aims to reconnect citizens with the political system. Our objective is to establish a citizens assembly which will enhance and support the parliamentary system. I will speak about this in more detail on another occasion. We the Citizens held seven public events throughout the country in the last six weeks, from Killarney to Letterkenny and from Blanchardstown to Cork, to see what themes and ideas fellow citizens might have about improving the governance of our country. These were positive meetings in the sense that citizens are clearly beginning to realise they have a personal responsibility in engaging and participating in local and national decision-making. In other words, it is about active citizenship. The disconnect between citizens and politics is one of the issues we have identified in our public events, and the need to increase political participation is now an imperative.
Seanad Éireann, by doing its business differently, can assist in forging a greater connection between citizen and Senator. Citizens vote once in a while, but what happens in the interim? How can politicians and citizens engage in a mutually respectful and equal way? It is about increasing our knowledge of the way Government works and improving civic education among our citizens in order that they can support the Oireachtas.
I heard the issues of transparency, accountability and personal responsibility debated at length during the We the Citizens public meetings. They desire change and I believe Members also wish to improve on how the Seanad conducts its business. To change, Members must innovate and in this regard I welcome Senator McAleese's contribution in the Seanad last week. The Seanad could be the Trojan horse for an increased strengthening of our parliamentary democracy. The recommendations on page 68 of the 2004 report on Seanad reform that require only amendments to Standing Orders are simple, clear and innovative. I refer in particular to what my fellow Senator Zappone highlighted, namely, the power to scrutinise legislation and improve the deliberative process. For the Seanad to have a good audition, however, I believe it also should consider another recommendation contained on page 68 of the aforementioned report, that is, to become the principal reviewer of policy in the Houses of the Oireachtas concentrating on "medium-term economic and social planning" and having a dialogue with leaders in the community and civil society. I acknowledge I cannot describe my senatorship as truly democratic since I was appointed and not elected and I have no real mandate from anyone. However, I consider it to be my responsibility and duty as a Senator to make those connections between this esteemed House and our fellow citizens.
The invitation to the floor of Seanad Éireann, on a case by case basis, of appropriate leaders and representatives of civic life who have a significant contribution to make to the deliberations of this House is about celebrating the power and the vision of Seanad Éireann. The proposal set out in this motion is to innovate and change and is not new. However, the urgency to renew is pressing. Members should imagine, weekly or regularly from July onwards, that civic leaders and senior public servants could brief and engage in dialogue with Members in a mutually respectful way. The 2004 report states quite starkly that Seanad Éireann "has no distinctive role in the Irish political system". Perhaps this also was thought of the Irish Presidency until Presidents Robinson and McAleese took hold of that office and innovated. In my new role as a Senator, I wish to hear in this Chamber, regularly and perhaps even weekly, the views of cultural, social, sporting, educational and community leaders, both North and South, as well as of our emigrants across the world. It could be called the citizens' hour. The detail and procedure can be worked out by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges but its impact and symbolism would enhance the role of the Seanad and the manner in which Members conduct their business overall. It would make it distinctive and would support the participative democratic objectives of the Oireachtas. Consequently, having seconded the motion, I commend it to the House.
First and foremost, while Members on the Government side are in agreement with the body of the motion and are broadly supportive of the proposals therein, I wish to propose——
Does the Senator intend to move the amendment?
I move amendment No. 1:
After "decade" in the last line to add the following:
"; and that these proposals be considered by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges at the earliest opportunity".
The only amendment the Government side suggests is that these proposals be considered by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
I will turn to the programme for Government's proposals on Oireachtas reform with a focus on Seanad reform. The Fine Gael-Labour Party programme for Government includes an ambitious programme for political reform in which the Government has committed to radical Oireachtas reform both in respect of reducing numbers in the Oireachtas and of abolishing the Seanad if the public approves this measure in a constitutional referendum next year. It is proposed to reduce the number of Deputies following the publication of the results of the 2011 census of population. Until the future of the Seanad is decided in a referendum next year, the Government will support reforms that will create an efficient Seanad. The Taoiseach's 11 appointed Senators demonstrated a break with the past through the appointment of a number of Independent Senators from outside the political system.
I refer to the Oireachtas reform that has been achieved to date during the first 100 days of the present Government. The Government plans to increase the number of days on which the Oireachtas sits and action already has been taken in this regard with the Easter recess earlier this year being shortened and bank holiday breaks being removed. Moreover, there will be a greatly reduced summer recess later this year. The Oireachtas committee system has been reformed and the number of committees has been reduced to create a committee system that will be stronger and that will bring real focus to the areas covered by the committees. Moreover, a Joint Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions, which will be chaired by a member of the Opposition, also has been created, and this constitutes a strong addition to the committee system. In addition, MEPs will have an opportunity to attend and contribute to Oireachtas committees. Such measures reflect the essence of the motion that has been tabled.
The Private Members' motion on Seanad reform confirms that the great majority of Members wish to see the Seanad reformed in order that it can work more efficiently and be more effective. The Government is broadly supportive of the proposals for changing the manner in which the Seanad conducts its business as set out by the Independent group's motion. As I noted, the only amendment being proposed by the Government side to the motion is that the proposal be considered by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The members of the aforementioned committee will be obliged to review the proposals contained within this motion and to consider how these changes could be best implemented. I commend the amendment to the House.
Fáiltím roimh an rún seo agus tá áthas orm go bhfuil sé ag tarlú chomh luath i saol an tSeanaid seo. Tugaim faoi deara nuair a thagaimid isteach gach maidin, cé nach mbíonn mórán ama againn ar an Ord Gnó, go mbíonn tuairimí ag teacht chun tosaigh an t-am ar fad agus gur féidir linn, mar Sheanadóirí, féachaint conas is féidir feabhas a chur ar obair an tSeanaid féin. Fiú nach raibh sin ag tarlú taobh istigh den Seanad, tá sé le clos amuigh ins na meáin cumarsáide le tamall fada anuas, go mórmhór ar an raidió agus ar an teilifís.
Tá súil agam go mbeidh an rún seo á phlé againn agus tuairimí éagsúla agus difriúla á lua. Tá súil agam freisin go mbeidh leanúnachas ann. Molaim go mór na Seanadóirí Neamhspleácha agus tá súil agam go mbeidh siad in ann leanúint ar aghaidh leis an bpróiseas seo, mar phróiseas céimiúil atá ann, dar ndóigh. D'fhéadfaimís an-dul chun cinn a dhéanamh i saol an tSeanaid seo.
Tá súil agam freisin go mbeidh seans ag an gCoiste um Nós Imeachta agus Pribhléidí, cé nach bhfuil mé féin ar an gcoiste sin anois, féachaint conas is féidir athstruchtúrú a dhéanamh ar an gCoiste um Nós Imeachta agus Pribhléidí féin. Tá gá leis sin a dhéanamh chun an rún seo a chur chun tosaigh.
I greatly welcome this motion and I am pleased it has been tabled so soon in the life of this Seanad because with something new, I always have the impression that when the newness wears off, part of the enthusiasm might also be diluted. I salute the Independent Senators for having come forward so quickly. The motion itself is quite specific and focused, which I also consider to be important. A debate rightly is under way on Seanad reform and I agree with Senator Mac Conghail regarding the last report because I believe one must build on the consultation that took place at that time. Some might state it was not radical enough and others might suggest it was too radical but the important point is that broad consultation took place and members of the public were given the opportunity of putting forward their views. The committee which met to produce the report included members who had wide experience of the Oireachtas in general and, by using the report as the basic document, Members might be able to save some time.
This motion is more specific than that. It is about using the Seanad in its present form in the most productive, positive and transparent way possible. In the past, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges has considered the petitions system as one way of giving people an opportunity to interact with the Seanad. This system would mean a contact not at a distance, not by means of a letter and not by watching "Oireachtas Report". It might be one of the areas that could be expedited at this time. There is a model available in other countries for the petition system and it is well worthwhile. I ask the Committee on Procedure and Privileges to consider how far advanced that model is because it is tangible and could be introduced quickly. An explanation of how the system works and the parameters within which it operates would be required but I ask the CPP to consider it.
I know the Leader and the CPP will not regard it as being somewhat bold on my part to suggest that perhaps the CPP might look at its own operations as well, in conjunction with the motion which has been put forward. The CPP is the key to the implementation of this motion. Any morning on the Order of Business, when we have suggested inviting someone into the Seanad in some role, whether for participation in a question and answer session or to address the House, we were always told that this was a matter for the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. It is therefore important to look at the CPP first of all. I looked very closely at the Leader to see if in some way he agreed with me. He did not nod his head but I know he is a man of vast experience and he is also well aware, having sat on this side of the Chamber, of the need for change. I know the House is in pretty good hands.
I will take a few steps back from the motion to take a broad look at the state of the country. I noticed a sea-change in thinking, in debates and in articles since we first became aware of the recession. It was like a shock to the system of the whole nation. As a result, people started to think and reflect just a little more on how the country operates, how the wheels are oiled, how the engine turns over. This motion reflects that sea-change. We would not do any credit to this auspicious assembly if we knew that this type of change had happened, that there were new requirements, new demands and new ideas and we did not reflect this within the Chamber. If we have to depend on television programmes to have that debate, then there is something radically wrong with us as legislators. We have to take that on board. In fact, I have often watched some of the television programmes and I think we have a very high standard in that regard. However, if we start at community level, we know the strengths we have; we know the extent of voluntarism; we know the efforts being made by people to re-position themselves.
There are opportunities to interact with the public in spite of the constraints. It is not sufficient in itself to say each time that we are bound by those constraints because if there is a sea-change in society, that same sea-change should be within the Legislature itself. It never came home more to me than in a debate in the House on a motion to do with 1916 and Moore Street. I looked back at the Visitors' Gallery and all the descendants of the 1916 leaders were sitting silently because they could not interact with us. This cannot be right. There was a sense of history in the Chamber. I went to the Visitors' Gallery subsequently to talk to them and I felt ashamed that this was the way we were dealing with these people when they were prepared to come in here.
I did not realise the time was so short but I ask the Leader to consider in the future to allow a little longer on a Private Members' motion. I compliment the Independent Senators. I am quite sure they will keep up the momentum and I also hope there will be a report to the House from the CPP in the very near future.
I support the motion and I commend the Independent group for tabling it. Like all the Independent group of Senators I am a new Senator. My frustration has been great in recent weeks due in part to my difficulty in getting used to the process here and my view that much of what happens here is very much stage managed. I am used to local government where I spent 23 and a half years and where spontaneous debate was often the best debate. I support what has been said in general, but I wish to make a few specific points about representation and the understanding and involvement of local government within the process to introduce some changes and innovation into the role of the Seanad.
Forty-three Members of this House have been elected by county and city councillors, of which there are 883 in total. We go out to seek their votes over an eight to ten-week period and then we basically forget about them in terms of their input into this House or their input into legislation relevant to them or to their work in local government. They have no input into legislation because this is not permitted by law. On some occasions they may make submissions on legislation if it is relevant to local government and depending on the Minister in the Custom House, they may get a hearing once a year when the three associations representing councillors are called up and brought in for the proverbial chat. However, beyond that, there is no input from local government into what happens in this country, albeit that democracy starts at local government level. I am delighted the Independent group had seven meetings across the country and had meetings on the political system because the system begins with local government. The failure of this House and the Lower House to include local government in the workings of democracy is a major failure.
I contrast this situation with that in Spain. A Minister for territorial policy advises and assists all local authorities in Spain on economic matters. He issues reports relevant to local government, contributes to the relations between central government, local government and NGOs. In France, for example, a variety of mechanisms are in place to enable the government to consult local authorities about proposed regulatory provisions through an informal consultation process with the national elected members associations, to reform a mandatory consultation process involving specialised committees instituted by legislative provisions. For example, any changes in the provision of water by the Spanish Government have to be agreed and signed off at local government level before they can be initiated.
I have several proposals which I ask the Independent group of Senators to take on board and on which to give their views. There should be formal and informal arrangements to consult elected members at town and county council levels on all legislation relevant to local government. The programme for Government currently allows discussions and consultations with MEPs. I propose that this should be extended to include the representatives of local government, the town and county councillors.
I understand Senator Landy is sharing his time with Senator Harte. How many minutes will be given to Senator Harte?
How many minutes are left?
Three and a half minutes.
I will give him two minutes.
I spent seven years representing the Labour Party on the Committee of the Regions. It is an arm of the European project based in Brussels which represents all local and regional government throughout Europe. Its purpose is to consult local and regional authorities across Europe on any proposals from the EU which would be relevant to them.
As somebody who sat on it for seven years and initiated a number of opinions on various issues that would eventually affect Ireland, I find it very disheartening to see that within the system of legislation here local government is left out. Several things can be done. We can include local government. I agree with Senator Ó Murchú when he said that when anything is asked here that does not conform to the norm it is referred to the CPP when we know that it is constrained by the Standing Orders of the House in terms of what it can do. Effectively, we are getting a "no", but a delayed "no".
We have to examine that process. We have to ensure that if we want to raise issues such as were raised earlier today that we can find a mechanism to do that. There needs to be a radical shake-up of the procedures within the House to allow for these debates to go ahead, for the processes in which they can go ahead and to make this House relevant to ordinary citizens, starting at local town councils where people elect councillors through to county councils and city councils. That is just one important element. I support anything else that has been said.
I welcome the Minister of State. In my maiden speech two weeks ago I suggested that the Seanad could move around the country, thereby making it more relevant to citizens. I proposed that it would meet first in my county of Donegal. I am sure the Minister of State would agree wholeheartedly with me. We could fight over whether the sitting took place in Donegal North-East or Donegal South-West. Somewhere like Glenties Castle would be an ideal location from a tourism point of view. We could bring the Seanad, even the last one, to the population and they could see it working. It could meet in Mayo and Galway as well. I do not know if the CPP discussed my proposal yesterday. Such a sitting would have to be cost neutral.
I think Gay might have the inside track on that.
I look forward to meeting the Minister of State in the Seanad in Donegal.
I wish to share time with Senator John Crown.
I welcome the Minister of State and this debate. The concept is good but I have some reservations that it could mean that the Seanad could become a giant committee. We have to differentiate ourselves from a committee system.
There is an obvious appetite for more engagement with the general public and that is what the motion is trying to achieve. In terms of this, perhaps a better way of doing it would be to have a petitions committee like in the US or European Parliament. This would be a committee to which any citizen could suggest changes in legislation. If a suggested change is considered to have merit it would go initially to the Seanad, become a Bill and eventually go to the Dáil. This would mean that every citizen would have the opportunity to change the law. I understand that the petitions committee has been a success in the Scottish Parliament.
I refer to the Australian Senate. We should take an international view when considering how to best reform the Seanad. The Canadians are currently looking at reforming their Senate and have examined the Australian Senate. The Australian Senate has been mentioned in the UK as a model to reform the House of Lords. In Australia, the Senate takes a very active role and the government of the day has very seldom had a majority in the Senate. This means that the opposition and other minor parties can make great progress in scrutinising government operations.
It is interesting to read the recent comparison of the Seanad and the Australian Senate by Dr. Liam Weeks of UCC. He identified three main flaws with the Seanad: it is indirectly elected; the Taoiseach appoints 11 Members, thus ensuring a majority for the Government; and it has no real powers.
Why did the Senator not——-
As I have only four minutes, I am going to keep going.
On the other hand, the Australian Senate is wholly different and is probably the third most powerful Upper House in the world. Its 76 Members are elected by the same method used in the Seanad, namely, the single transferable vote. However, as many have argued for, the vote is open to all adults and is not limited to politicians and university graduates.
Dr. Weeks says that being elected under a form of PR not only gives the Upper House a distinct identity, compared to the Lower Australian House which is elected by STV in single seat constituencies, it also ensures a more balanced representation than in the Lower House, allowing for a greater range of voices to be heard. Not only that, but the lifetime of the Seanad is entirely dependent on the Dáil which means that it is difficult for the Upper House to carve out a separate and distinct existence.
In Australia, half of the Senators are elected between general elections in a staggered format. It is interesting and could be something that we consider in addition to holding elections for both Houses on the same day to ensure that the House is not a retirement home for failed Deputies. Also, each state in Australia elects the same number of Senators, similar to the United States. In Ireland, the Government almost always has a majority in the Seanad. However, the opposite is the case in Australia and the ability of the Upper House there to hold the government to account and even frustrate it is very much supported as a crucial component of the Australian parliamentary system of checks and balances. Since the governing party in Australia rarely has a majority in the Senate, its legislation sometimes gets cooled by the Upper House. Consequently, the government cannot ride roughshod over Parliament and guillotine legislation as can happen in the Dáil. Instead it may have to engage in a consultative process. The end result means that there is better policy that feeds off the input of those in parliament, not just Ministers in government. This is the sort of system that we should strive towards.
This diversity in the Upper House is one of the vital factors in having a more effective Seanad. We have enlarged that to some degree with the appointment of different voices by the Taoiseach to the House but we must go further. I welcome the discussion and by implementing some of the measures I have mentioned we can make this House a worthy and even more effective part of the democratic process. I appreciate the opportunity to debate this matter.
In reading the motion tabled by our colleagues from the Independent Group I am reminded somewhat of a condemned person reading the warrant of the court which tells him or her that he or she shall be led from the court, then stopping and making sure that wherever he or she is being led to, everyone will have a good chat about things, dress well and create a good appearance without acknowledging that the second part of the judge's pronouncement is that he or she shall be taken away to the place of execution and there the sentence of the court will be carried out.
The reality is that there is a very big elephant in the room. With no disrespect, our colleagues could also perhaps consider the possibility that in constructing the motion in this fashion it looks a little like we are giving the condemned person a chance to make a last speech from the dock before he or she goes rather than trying to appeal the sentence of death. The nature of the manner in which they have been appointed to the Seanad may be one which precludes some level of independence from the programme for Government. Time may prove me wrong on that.
I am now looking at the Seanad from the inside but I still feel a little bit like a political outsider. In looking at it from the outside, one finds a body which is dominated by two parties which are completely ideologically identical. We now have two groups of Independents who are not only internally ideologically inconsistent but each claims to be independent. It is a very irrational system.
In looking forward, we need to reform the entire Oireachtas. The Seanad has not been the proximate cause of the problems which confronts our country. It may have been asleep at the tiller and not have done a very good job in scrutinising the actions of the Dáil, but the sins of commission which led to the destruction of our economy and the desperate situation in which our public services will find themselves later this year result from the actions of the Lower House. With no disrespect to individual Members of the Lower House, we are seeing an urgent cri du coeur for fundamental Oireachtas reform. I do not know if we are the official or provisional Independent group, but I would ask our colleagues to join us in looking from outside the party system at the need for a major national debate, not on how we can bring people into a talking-shop within a condemned Chamber, but on how we can actually reform the Chamber to make it relevant for the future. In doing so, we should also examine reform of the Lower House. I suspect that I will be addressing these issues repeatedly over the next few years, but my own core belief is that we need to reform the way we elect Members to the Lower House in order that there is less focus on parochialism. We need bring in people who have a national perspective while at the same time not denigrating that sacred connection between the electorate and Members of Parliament. We need to have a Chamber where people are answerable to a local community but also answerable to a constituency. There would be great sense in having some version of a list system — either national or regional — employed for the election of the more powerful Lower House where most legislation originates. In addition, we could have a regionally, constituency-based, separate Upper House which would give people that sense of connection with the process of central government.
The Senator has half a minute left.
I am trying to fix the whole country in the next 30 seconds.
It could take 20 years.
In parallel with this, we need to reform the way we appoint Ministers. In our modern, fast-moving age, we clearly need to have people who are skilled in the areas to which they are appointed. I do not wish to personalise this point, but the previous three Ministers with responsibility for the health portfolio, prior to the current Minister, Deputy Reilly, had a total of four years in the non-political workforce before entering the Lower House. I do not think that is a satisfactory situation.
The amendment seeks to refer changes in Seanad procedures to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, but it is not in any way kicking this motion to touch. The reason we are suggesting that it be considered by the CPP is to put structure on the proposals upon which we agree. I totally agree with them. It is, therefore, a matter of putting the proper structures in place to enable the motion to achieve what it says on the tin. I agree that this House should have direct engagement with citizens. Two weeks ago, I suggested resurrecting the petitions committee, which never got up and running. Senator Quinn referred to petitions committees in places like Scotland and Australia where they work well, but still need to be improved. The debates and petitions committee in the Scottish Parliament sometimes meets from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., but I am not in favour of a situation like that. We need clear, concise debate and dialogue when we get this petitions committee up and running.
In referring to that committee two weeks ago, I was unaware that the Government intended to have an Oireachtas Joint Investigations, Oversight and Petitions Committee. I firmly believe, however, that we should still go ahead with our petitions committee as soon as possible. It would get this motion working so that such a committee could engage directly with citizens. If there are any obstacles in the way, for example, if the CPP is constrained by Standing Orders, I will suggest that we change the Standing Orders. We need action and I will not be an obstacle in the way of having these reforms brought about.
We need to open our space to others. The only pity is that this did not happen many years ago. If it had, we would not be speaking about the relevance of the Seanad or the possibility of the public deciding whether the House should go. The people will decide this matter. Regardless of whether we are on death row, as Senator Crown stated, when a referendum is called we must convince people of the value and relevance of this House. We do not have too much time in which to do so.
We should definitely bring people, such as European Commissioners, to this House for debates on agriculture and fisheries, as Senators have requested. There will be a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy as well as of the Common Fisheries Policy in the next year or two. MEPs have appeared before the House and we can have more of them here again, in addition to Heads of State and leaders of industry. We must, however, put the necessary structures in place to allow that to happen. That is why I am suggesting that the CPP, as a matter of urgency, should work on this. If the CPP has to work two or three days a week, I will suggest to the Cathaoirleach, who will be chairing the committee, that it does so. It should meet until we have the proper structures in place in order that we can put these proposals into action fairly soon.
Since this Seanad first met, I have put in place some small but significant changes, to which Senator Sheahan alluded. We need much more, however. Politicians do not know it all, and the public is aware of that. There is a need, therefore, for dialogue and an exchange of views with the public. The Seanad reform that was envisaged previously dealt mostly with how the House would be elected. The motion, however, concerns how we will reform our business within the House. We reform or we die; it is as simple as that. We must convince the public in that short period of the value and relevance of the Seanad.
I strongly reiterate that by putting the matter to the CPP, we are in no way kicking it to touch. We want to put the proper structures in place to allow this very good Independent motion to be acted upon. I assure the Independent Senators that it will be acted upon, and the sooner, the better.
I compliment all Senators who have contributed to the debate and especially those who have made their maiden speeches this evening. This is the type of debate we need in this House, so let us ensure it is not just talk but that we can put our words into action. That is what we need to do and it is what every Member of the House wants. I will do everything to facilitate what Members of the House want in this regard.
I would like to assure Senator Crown, who has gone off to build the guillotine, that there is absolutely nothing——
We do not refer to Senators as having left the House.
Let me say then that there is absolutely nothing provisional about me. Let me assure everyone that I have the girth of great permanency.
I support the motion tabled by my fellow Senators, Senators Zappone and Mac Conghail. Politicians are always asking themselves questions such as how we can do things differently and how things can be different. My question is very simple but, in essence, it is the same as that posed by my colleagues: how can we transform the House to be more qualitative and more real in its effect for the people who pay our wages? Those same people do not know what goes on in here. Having worked 33 years in Irish education, I did not know what went on in here. I am not blaming those people for that. I just wonder why that is the case.
There are two things we need to think about: the form and function of the Seanad, and these must be understood by the public. The form and the function of the Seanad must be connected to the public. It could begin, as my colleagues suggest, by engaging the public in the first of the many ways we have outlined in our amendment. We can talk about transparency and a participative democracy, but these are only aspirations, beliefs and values. What we really need is action. The power of the action lies with us, as the Leader has said, and it is only with us.
To use an analogy that might be better understood by Senator Mac Conghail, I do not want to be in scene 4, act 4, on my way off the stage pursued by a bear, as happened in The Winter’s Tale. We certainly do not want the Seanad to be the winter’s tale. If this is an epilogue, then it is our fault because we will not do anything. We will have no one to blame but ourselves if we do not do anything. However, I suggest it could be a prologue in form and in function.
I know from being privileged enough to be around Senator McAleese that democracy and dialogue never hurt anyone, and democracy and dialogue cannot be casualties of the recession, no matter how difficult things become. It is my opinion, as I know from his work over the past 14 years, that democracy and dialogue are the only way up, the only way through a recession and the only way for a surviving Seanad.
I wish to share my time with Senator Michael D'Arcy.
Like other colleagues, I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank him for his forbearance in listening to this and look forward to hearing his contribution.
In line with colleagues, I very much welcome this motion, which is practical, useful and ties in totally with the aims, goals and objectives of all of us in this new Seanad. It is in line with every Member's view and thinking. The amendment, of which I am supportive, is only the slightest amendment. As Senator Cummins said, it was tabled merely to structure the proposals involved, and that will be easily done. The Committee on Procedure and Privileges, at its meeting this morning, even agreed on the speed with which it will tackle this, and Senator Cummins has given voice to that this evening and also to dealing with the petitions committee, which will also be done speedily.
I was particularly taken by the portion of the motion which refers to respectful North-South dialogue that would consolidate the peace process in Northern Ireland, develop a dividend for all the communities — those communities that have been so hurt by the divisions and conflicts of the past — and deepen cross-Border relationships. That is very constructive because down here we have often acted too much in isolation without concern for the people with whom we share the island of Ireland. I very much welcome that part of the motion. It is very positive.
I was very taken with the contributions of the proposer and seconder of the motion, Senators Zappone and Mac Conghail, and by what the latter said about cultural links and the constantly changing and innovating ways in which he in his line of work has to perform. Surely that is something we have to take on board in our work, of which we are now very conscious. The concept of having a citizen's hour was mentioned by a previous speaker and perhaps that could develop from our Order of Business. I have no doubt that Senator Cummins will have the Committee on Procedure and Privileges deal with that efficiently and well. Senator Tom Sheahan also referred to that. We have started well in that we are greatly shortening the summer recess. This Seanad will be, and perhaps already is, more efficient and will be even more so, and this Chamber will become more effective as time passes.
For all those reasons and more, I greatly welcome the motion. I look forward, in the role I now have, to contributing actively to providing those improvements both in Chamber and through the Committee on Procedure and Privileges.
It is a pleasure to speak to the motion and I am happy to do so, but if we are being honest, the truth is there is nothing this Chamber can do, by changing around procedures, to connect with the people. There is only one thing that can happen politically and that is that the people would elect Senators to this Chamber. Everything else is tinkering around the edges and tiptoeing around the real issue. That is the only way this Chamber can become relevant. It is the only way the Seanad should be saved.
To put it into context, a number of Senators should be directly elected in very large constituencies. A very large constituency might be ten Dáil seats comprising two five-seat constituencies. Wicklow and Wexford are an example I can give of a constituency of 250,000 people. In terms of why that should be done, a person elected to a large constituency of that type cannot attend all the funerals and do the constituency work or the other work being done by Members of the Dáil.
I am not just critical of the way this Seanad is operating or how it is elected, I am critical of the way the Dáil is elected. The reality is that in the 1970s and the 1980s, constituency clinics were first held. In the 1990s constituency offices were first opened. In the next decade Deputies were out knocking on doors. With e-mails, mobile telephones and social networking, Deputies have become constituency slaves. They do not analyse or scrutinise any legislation. Anything that is happening is a pretence. We can pretend we are doing something about that or we can do something alien to politics, that is, we can do something about it. That is reform. It is not tinkering around the edges. It will have to be a massive change.
Two other areas must change. The control of the Executive over the Legislature in this country is total. Our adversarial type of politics is based upon the United Kingdom model, but other countries have a looser and better system in regard to separation of powers. The separation of powers here is irrelevant. The Executive is in full control of the Legislature and that is not a good thing.
The final issue I want to address is our Civil Service. We must reform the Civil Service. We must reform the way those in the Civil Service are appointed. A Secretary General is appointed and no one knows who he or she is but he or she has full power. Why does he or she have full power? It is because Ministers come and go. It is classic Sir Humphrey Appleby in "Yes, Minister" and it is the classic Civil Service we have in this country. That must change. We must be prepared to be bold, and I hope this Fine Gael-Labour Party Government will be bold. We must be bold because when we leave office, we will leave the institutions in a better condition than that in which we found them. That means being brave, although that is not always something one gets rewarded for in politics.
Equally, it is crucial we reform our local authority structures. The way they were designed on establishment in 1899 was grand but we have an amazing number of county councillors in some areas. The best example I can give is County Leitrim which, with a population of less than 30,000 people and with a standard turnout of 60%, has 22 councillors. One can get elected in County Leitrim with 300 or 400 votes. The largest local authority electoral ward is Carrigaline in County Cork. It has six council seats and 60,000 people. The imbalance is ridiculous. This is the legacy we have inherited and no one will decide to change it because leaving it is easier. Fianna Fáil has been the Government party since the establishment of the State. Why change the system when one is in charge and is able to win local, Seanad and general elections? For the first time, Fine Gael has the largest number of seats in the Dáil and the Seanad. We must stand up and declare that we will leave the institutions in a better state than they were when we first found them.
I wish to share two minutes with Senator White.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I thank the Independent group for taking the initiative to raise this issue. I welcome the motion and agree with its proposals. I thank the Leader for his commitment to progress them and hope that it can be done via the Committee on Procedure and Privileges as quickly as possible.
I echo the comments regarding the 2004 report of the committee chaired by former Senator Mary O'Rourke. It is important that we build on that cross-party report, which contained many excellent recommendations and followed on from a public consultation process. The report identified possible new roles for the House in a number of areas, for example, legislative consultation, EU affairs, social partnership, North-South implementation — North-South relations comprise one of the issues raised in the motion — and scrutiny of public appointments.
It is fair to say that the Seanad has served people better than is generally appreciated in terms of providing a forum for a more constructive, less partisan debate and through the legislative improvements proposed in the House. All Senators are anxious to serve people as best we can, to address their daily concerns and to make a real difference.
It is vital that our work should add value to rather than duplicate the role of the Dáil. That the House has struggled for a long time to find an optimum role is evident, given that there have been 12 reports on Seanad reform over many years. I agree with the Leader's sentiments that it is now a case of reform or die. However, considering reform of the Seanad separately from reform of the Dáil and the Government would be fundamentally wrong. I agree with Senator Michael D'Arcy that the real problem lies with the Dáil, which is given the most power under the Constitution and is supposed to hold the Government to account. We have seen a weakness in that role, especially in recent years, and this matter needs to be examined carefully.
While Fine Gael and the Labour Party proposed during the general election that the Seanad be abolished, Fianna Fáil's position was that the Seanad's role should only be examined following serious changes to the Dáil and the Government. As an eminent professor and political scientist in Trinity College stated, without such changes, the abolition of the Seanad would reduce rather than enhance political accountability. It is vital that the Dáil, the Government and the Seanad be examined together.
A number of Senators, in particular Senator Michael D'Arcy, have pointed to the key weaknesses in the current Dáil-Government system, those being, excessive localism, an infectious level of party political posturing in place of real debate on a daily basis and a lack of expertise around the Cabinet table. Fianna Fáil's proposals during the general election focused on addressing these weaknesses specifically. For example, we made proposals on changing the electoral system. Senator Crown eloquently referred to the benefits of a national list system. For the Dáil, we proposed a mix of single seat constituencies and a national list which would allow people to retain their direct link with local politicians at constituency level while providing an avenue to elect people who were genuinely interested in national issues and who could represent a national constituency.
We made good suggestions on improving the quality of debate and legislative oversight in the Dáil and opportunities for co-operation. The Government has discussed improving the opportunities for Deputies on all sides of the Lower House to have an input into legislation. By the time legislation appears in the House, the Government has typically set out its stall and drawn up detailed legislation and the House is presented with a de facto position. Ministers tend to be reluctant to accept amendments, seeing it as a weakness that they did not think of something, and the Opposition tends to attack everything in the Bill from a political point of view. During the election, we believed this situation could be addressed by holding a general debate in the House before legislation is drafted and by allowing all Deputies, including Government backbenchers, an opportunity to table proposals. In this way, the legislation would benefit and people would see a real difference.
We also proposed that we would improve the method of selection for Government and that those who were not Deputies could be Ministers to allow people with an expertise in other fields to serve, for example, business people who do not want to opt into politics as a 30-year lifetime career but who would like to offer something for five years. We could gain dramatically from this proposal, given our economic difficulties. Will the Leader use his influence within the main Government party to ensure the whole issue of political reform, not just Seanad reform, including the excellent ideas proposed in this debate, is advanced by the new Government?
I wish to touch on a further issue, that is, women's role in politics. It is wrong to discuss political reform without considering that, while 50% of the population is female, it has always been the case that 85% of Deputies have been male. I welcome the fantastic initiative taken by the Taoiseach in nominating seven women as Senators. It shows the quality of women and I do not doubt that excellent women could take a place in the Lower House. The lack of women in politics matters. Without a doubt, the lives of men and women have become increasingly similar in that everyone is concerned about issues such as the economy, jobs, housing and so on. However, a number of other issues affect women predominantly. For example, women are more likely to be full-time carers in the home, either for a child or an elderly parent, to be in low-paid, part-time employment and to be victims of domestic violence, as chillingly revealed in today's publication of Women's Aid's annual report. With respect to the male Senators, and while male politicians will do their best to represent all their constituents, life experience is something that each of us brings to our roles as public representatives, and a woman's life experience and different perspective cannot be genuinely reflected in our national Parliament until it is more representative. I welcome the Government's recent initiative in this regard. Some weeks prior, our party leader made a commitment to run a female candidate in every local electoral area in the next local elections. I hope the issue will be taken on board by all parties.
I thank the Independents for tabling this motion. When I was first elected to the House in 2002, I was frustrated by people entering the Chamber, making speeches and then leaving. That is impossible to understand. If a person makes a statement, other people can respond when they speak. It is nonsense that we call these "debates". They are not debates.
It is not our fault that more is not known about the Seanad. There have been 11 reports on Seanad Éireann, but no Government has made any attempt to implement their recommendations.
I will make the criticism I tried to voice to Senator Quinn. The 1979 referendum was to allow the university vote to be extended to other third level colleges in the country. Many of the most articulate Senators in this House were from the university panels. Although there were six such Members in each Seanad, not of one of them drove that change, as voted for by the people. All political parties failed to deliver in that regard.
Debates and discussions in the Seanad are much more harmonious than in the Dáil and as such the Seanad does not excite the media. Debates in this House are not as personal, insulting or antagonistic and, as such, the Seanad does not make good television.
The 1937 Constitution allowed for two Ministers to be appointed from the Seanad. This was only done on one occasion by the late former Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, when he appointed Professor Dooge as Minister, which I find frustrating and difficult to understand. Fine Gael, the Labour Party or Fianna Fáil could regularly, as provided for in the Constitution, appoint two Members of the Seanad to be Ministers. It is no wonder new Members are frustrated. One can only imagine the excitement had two Members of this House during the past few years been appointed Ministers. I would love to have been a Minister. I have business experience. I co-founded a business which now employs 250 people. I know about business.
First, it is important Senators remain in the House to hear the contributions of others.
Time keeping is also important.
Some of the greatest critics are those who do not remain in the House to hear colleagues speak. Second, why has the provision in the 1937 Constitution, which allows for two Members of this House to be appointed Ministers, not been utilised? Third, why did the university Senators not drive the change voted for in the 1979 referendum? Perhaps it is because they did not want to put themselves out of business. I have been a Member of the Seanad for eight years. The university Senators believe they are superior to everyone else.
The Senator must conclude.
I would like to respond to a point made by Senator Landy. It is difficult to get elected to the Seanad. Do Members think I would have been elected had I sat on my hands for the past eight years? Neither I nor my colleagues would have been elected had we not worked morning, noon and night during the years we were previously Members of this House.
I must ask the Senator to sit on her seat.
I am sure that many of the new Members, in particular the Independent Members, are not aware that county councillors are the closest to democracy. Senators should study what they do. Our bureaucratic system is hopeless, inefficient and incompetent. County councillors look after the people. They live in the community and look after the interests of the people. No more than us, they are not highly regarded. I appreciate the Acting Chairman's forbearance.
Before calling the Minister of State, I call the Leader of the House.
With the permission of the proposers of the motion, I propose that this debate be rolled over to next week. A number of Senators wish to contribute to the debate and will not get the opportunity to do so if we conclude the debate at 7.30 p.m. I propose that another hour be provided next Tuesday to allow people an opportunity to speak.
Is that agreed?
Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil dos na Seanadóirí a labhair ar an rún tábhachtach seo go dtí seo. Tuigim gur seo ceann des na céad rúin i nGnó Comhaltaí Príobháideacha a bhí agaibh san Seanad úr. Léiríonn sé go bhfuil suim ag na Seanadóirí ó gach taobh den Teach i leasú a dhéanamh ar an chóras pholaitíochta agus, chomh maith, b'fhéidir leasú a dhéanamh ar an Seanad féin. Sílim gur maith an rud é sin.
The fact that one of the first issues debated at Private Members' time in the new Seanad is a motion on Seanad reform clearly indicates a new willingness on the part of the Members of this House to engage with the issue of political reform. The fact that the only amendment the Government side has made to the motion is that the proposal be considered by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges displays a willingness on the part of this Government to engage with groups interested in working towards political reform.
The results of last February's general election clearly displayed a shift in public support from those with a history of opposition to political reform towards the parties that proposed detailed plans for the radical reform of our political system. The Fine Gael-Labour Party programme for Government sets out an ambitious and comprehensive programme for political reform across a number of areas, of which Oireachtas reform is part.
Some of our commitments on Oireachtas reform have already been addressed. The programme for Government outlined the intention to increase the number of sitting days by 50%. The Government has already reduced the Easter recess, removed bank holiday breaks and shortened the summer recess by four weeks. The programme for Government outlines plans to reform the Oireachtas committee system. The number of committees in this Oireachtas has been reduced to allow the committee system work more effectively. Savings of an estimated 35% on the cost of running committees last year have been achieved. The new committees will be stronger and will bring real focus to the areas they cover. They will be properly resourced to carry out their functions. We have established a Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions which will be chaired by a member of the Opposition. This is a strong addition to the committee system. Irish MEPs will have an opportunity to attend and contribute to Oireachtas committees.
While this is not a debate on Seanad abolition and I do not want that issue to dominate this debate to the detriment of some of the good proposals put forward in this motion, it is important to acknowledge the Government's proposals in this area. The Government has committed to reducing the size of the Oireachtas significantly by reducing the number of Members in the Dáil and putting before the people a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad. When as Leader of the Opposition, the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, announced that in government he would give people an opportunity to vote on abolishing the Seanad, many doubted his commitment. Within 18 months the other main political parties were in agreement with the policy. Now, it is in the programme for Government and next year people will be given the opportunity to vote on the issue. It is not within the power of any Government or political party to abolish the Seanad. It is for the people and them alone to remove it from the Constitution. In the course of next year the Government will put a referendum before the people asking them to remove the Seanad from the Constitution, a decision by which the Government will be bound. There will be sufficient opportunity to debate that issue in the weeks and months before the referendum is held. I want to use the remainder of my time in this debate to address the reform proposals outlined in this motion. Many might have thought that a Government committed to abolishing the Seanad would have little or no interest in reforming it. That is not the case. The Government wants to see this Seanad become the most effective and efficient in the history of this institution. The Taoiseach's 11 appointed Senators were a break with the past. The appointments were used to appoint a number of genuine independent thinkers from outside the political system, people who could bring a new perspective to debate within this Chamber, and today's motion is an indication of this.
The Government is broadly supportive of the proposals for changing the way that the Seanad conducts its business, as set out by the Independent group in its motion. There can be little doubt among anyone, even the Members of this House, that the Seanad needs to change. The recommendations contained in this motion would have a major impact on the way the Seanad conducts its business.
The motion calls for arrangements to be put in place to allow the Seanad engage directly with citizens and residents from all walks of life whose experience and expertise can contribute to debates and add considerable value to the work of Senators as legislators. This may provide an opportunity to encourage active citizenship and allow citizens engage more with the political system. The petitions element of the new Oireachtas Committee on Investigations, Oversight and Petitions also aims at encouraging such active citizenship.
The motion seeks the power to invite to the floor of the Seanad, on a case-by-case basis, leaders and representatives of civic life who have a significant contribution to make to issues before this House. Such a development may see the Seanad being used as a forum for those whose voices deserve to be heard, but care would need to be taken to prevent such a forum being abused.
The motion believes it is possible to host North-South dialogue that consolidates the peace process, develops a peace dividend for all communities affected by the conflict, deepens cross-Border relationships and promotes a shared approach to the significant centenaries that will arise in the next decade. Such a proposal may provide a way whereby the two traditions on this island could develop closer bonds and move towards a better understanding of each other. The centenaries that are fast approaching should be seen as celebrations of our shared history, not as battlegrounds for the political beliefs that divide us.
The Government believes there is merit in the proposals contained in this motion. The procedures within the Seanad have to be agreed by the Members, which is why we believe these proposals should be considered by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges at the earliest opportunity. Seanad reform is, of course, the shared responsibility of every Member of this House. Senators of all political parties and none should have an active interest in this area. I hope the members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges review the proposals contained within this motion with an open mind and consider how the Seanad could benefit from the changes recommended.
I know that in the course of the contributions today and those to follow next week from Members of this House we will see the concept of shared responsibility for Seanad reform embraced in full. At some stage next year, the people will decide if this is to be the last Seanad. Regardless of the outcome of that referendum, the Members of this Seanad should strive to make this the best Seanad. I have no doubt that this will be the case. Having listened to the contributions today from those Senators who have been elected and those who have been nominated, I am sure it will be an exciting, constructive and positive Seanad. Guím gach rath ar an Seanad sa tréimhse atá amach roimhe.
Before I call the next speaker, I welcome former Deputy Paddy Harte and his wife, Mrs. Harte, to the Distinguished Visitors Gallery.
I commend the Independent group on bringing forward this important motion and I acknowledge the contribution made by Senator Mac Conghail, which was a very important one. Some very profound statements and proposals were made by the Senator and by members of his group in terms of their vision of the Seanad and political reform. I acknowledge the contribution from the Leader of the House who said he will ensure no obstacles will be put in the way of ensuring the substance and thrust of this motion is achieved, and that what all in this Chamber want happens, namely, that we would have a Seanad that works, is relevant and is dynamic.
I accept the proposal that this matter be sent to the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. I acknowledge that the Leader said this is not to kick the motion to touch, as he put it, but to ensure there is some structure, which is positive.
I acknowledge the robustness of the Leader when he talks of having flexibility in amending Standing Orders on this issue. I am sure he would forgive me for seeing this as somewhat ironic given that when we called for flexibility in Standing Orders in regard to speaking rights for the Sinn Féin grouping, the Standing Orders were then said to be sacrosanct.
That is not true.
I would hope some of the modest proposals which we in Sinn Féin have put forward in regard to speaking time are taken up by the Leader. There would be something ironic about having a discussion about people from outside this House coming here to speak when those inside the House do not have the same opportunities. I can give the example of the smaller Independent group of five Members. If all those Senators chose to speak, we in Sinn Féin would have to wait in turn until they were done before we would have an opportunity to make a contribution.
That is not true.
I hope the Leader of the House will correct this. I welcome the fact he has been positive, courteous and constructive in dealing with us as a group. I hope the CPP will take on board some of the proposals we have made.
In the context of this motion, we must ask ourselves a very obvious question, namely, what we believe is the purpose and future of this House That must be the starting point. We must ask what this House can be. Can it work as a check on and balance to the Dáil? Can it be a House where we can have genuine participation from groups outside this Chamber? I believe we can.
We should not be under any illusions that if we do not change and live up to the rhetoric that has been expressed by so many Senators in this Chamber, then, as Senator Norris said at our first sitting, we could become extinct. I am reminded of a phrase by a politician, "radical or redundant". If we do not become radical, we too, like the person who coined phrase, will become redundant. We must ensure that is not the case.
In my maiden speech in the House, I spoke of my view that there is a place in the State for a second Chamber. I would certainly argue for a reformed Seanad. I believe there is an opportunity for all Senators across all the parties to work together and to put together a set of proposals in order that we could at least go to the people and say we want to reform this House and make it relevant and democratic. When we talk about the Independent Senators who have been appointed, and I acknowledge the diversity in the Independent group, I make the point that no one should be appointed to an office where the people involved have an opportunity to be legislators. Everyone should be elected. One of the things we need to do if the House is to have any future and have a real connection with the people is to ensure Senators are democratically elected, which is very important.
I welcome the proposal from the Leader to resurrect the petitions committee as we must find some structure whereby we can invite groups to the House. This would be a very fair way of doing that. When people are invited to a House such as this, they tend to be academics. While I have nothing against academics, we need to ensure we hear the voices of the people who are experiencing real problems, those who are living the recession and, for example, those in the education sphere who know what effect the impact of education cuts on children, or those who work in the health service who understand the effect cuts to that service are having on citizens, or people from disadvantaged and working class communities. We must find some way to deal with these issues. The petitions committee would be an opportunity to do so and to ensure their voices are heard and that the voice of every group across society is heard, including the marginalised.
Recently, we had a discussion on immigrants. We need to ensure immigrants and the new Irish who enrich our society have a voice and an opportunity to contribute. I believe strongly in a multicultural society. We have seen in recent years that immigrants to Ireland have enriched the country and that it is a better place because of them. We must find some way of ensuring they have a voice. Young people are also important. We have the youngest Oireachtas Member, Kathryn Reilly, in this Chamber. Some 100,000 young people have left our shores because they see no hope, leadership, energy or interest in young people. We must find space for these young people.
One of the most critical issues is reform of the electoral system. All parties and politicians must be involved in this. Far too many people in Ireland do not vote, many are not even on the register and many are disenfranchised. We must simplify our system to ensure as many people as possible vote. I see no reason we must have an election on one day only. Elections could take place over two or three days. There is much we can do, but there is no point in coming up with proposals and engaging in debate and the rhetoric of reform if we do not deliver. Senator Mary White pointed out the number of reports that have been published on Seanad reform and the fact that none of them has been implemented. It is a question of being radical or redundant. I choose the radical, not for the sake of it but to make the House more relevant, democratic and more connected to the citizens we seek to serve. I thank the Independent group for tabling this motion.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and welcome the opportunity to debate this important motion which was put forward by the Independent nominee group. I thank the group for providing us with the opportunity to debate these proposals at this early stage in the new term of the 24th Seanad. This opportunity is important because it gives us an opportunity to be radical, as Senator Cullinane said, in the way we reform our procedures to ensure the Seanad becomes more relevant and that our debates have more impact.
The contributions from Senators Zappone and Mac Conghail when proposing and seconding the motion were hugely thought provoking in putting the case for more deliberative democracy and for opening up the Seanad. Other speakers have also put forward diverse views on how this could be done. Senator Landy, for example, my Labour Party colleague, has spoken about the need for greater links with local government in the Seanad and has taken a comparative view of the role of local government. Senator Harte also made an important contribution and put forward the notion of the Seanad sitting outside of Dublin at different times.
The issues raised by the motion can be addressed in a number of ways to make the Seanad more relevant and to open it up. The idea of inviting outside speakers to the Seanad is one that should be explored. We should look at allowing people with a significant contribution to make to the deliberations of the House to do so through that mechanism. The idea of using the Seanad as a forum for furthering and deepening respectful North-South dialogue is an idea that has arisen in many of the reports produced on Seanad reform and should be considered. Direct engagement with citizens and residents can be done in various ways. The use of a petitions committee was suggested and the Labour Party is keen to vitalise that proposal. As a Senator, Deputy Joanna Tuffy, initiated the Seanad petitions committee in 2006 but it has never been used. It is an important mechanism we could use to engage with citizens outside of the House and to make our business directly relevant.
There is precedent for the idea of sitting outside of Leinster House. The Seanad may not have done it before, but the Dáil sat in the Mansion House on the 90th anniversary of the first Dáil and it may have done the same in 1966. The joint committee on the Constitution has certainly sat at different venues outside of Leinster House, at Trinity College and UCC in the last session. Those sessions were successful at bringing in new people to hear what the committee was doing. If this can be done at minimal cost or in a cost neutral way, we should do it because it is a way of addressing the clear disconnection that exists between the public and political representatives. Those of us who canvassed in the most recent election found that after the economy, the next most important issue was political reform.
The reform of the Seanad is a topic that has been raised by several speakers and it has also been addressed by the Minister of State. I am grateful he said the Government is committed to making this an effective and efficient Seanad. The appointment of the Taoiseach's nominees from such a diverse and generally non-party political background has demonstrated that intent by the Government, which is welcome. The announcement that there will be a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad should not be taken in isolation. It would be a mistake to look only at abolishing the Seanad without considering parallel reforms to the rest of the political system. There is a concern that the proposed abolition of one House is mere window dressing that does not look at how we ensure the useful functions it serves can be incorporated into the other House. If we are to move to a unicameral system, we must ensure the heightened level of scrutiny that is afforded by two Houses can be achieved through the Dáil. I and many others have given much thought to this.
The Seanad forms a particularly vital function in several areas, such as scrutiny of legislation and Government policy. One area this is demonstrated is through the strong procedures we have for debates on Committee Stage of legislation. The figures produced by the Oireachtas in 2008 show that in that year 1,199 amendments to all Stages of Bills were made in the Seanad. Over the decade, from 1998 to 2008, some 30% of all Bills initiated in the Houses of the Oireachtas were initiated in the Seanad. There is no doubt the Seanad has had a very significant role in the area of legislative scrutiny and there are quite a number of examples of critical amendments made to Bills that would otherwise have been very flawed had issues not been spotted in the Seanad. Senator Cullinane mentioned the issue of age. Discrimination on grounds of age would have been left out of some of the equality legislation in the early 1990s until its omission was spotted by the Seanad which ensured age discrimination was included as one of the grounds. We could point to a number of ways in which heightened scrutiny is afforded through this House. If we are to consider abolishing the Seanad, we must look at how we afford that level of heightened scrutiny in the Dáil.
Another valuable feature the Seanad has brought to political debate is the fact that it has provided a forum for voices that are not being heard in the Dáil and for those who represent constituencies different from the geographic constituencies directly represented in the Dáil. Examples of these are the Taoiseach's nominees and the university Senators. Generally, Senators have tended to bring a more national focus to bear in debate. If we are to move to a unicameral system, we must investigate whether there is some way of reforming the Dáil to ensure we can have a group of persons elected from a national list or have people in the Dáil who have a more national focus to bring to bear on legislation.
The idea of a constitutional convention which could tease out issues around the future of the Seanad and the parallel political reforms that must be made is important. It is an idea in the programme for Government that has excited many people. They are excited by the idea of wholesale constitutional and political reform and by the proposal to have a tight timeframe for a convention that would examine that. I look forward to the setting up of the constitutional convention and to the debate around reform of the political process, of which the future of the Seanad is just one part. This debate gives us an opportunity to reform our own procedures, pending the outcome of that national debate, to ensure we become more relevant and more engaged in public debate.
I propose to share my time with Senator Mary Ann O'Brien.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
We are all agreed that the future of this House is uncertain and that its future will be put to the people very soon by way of a referendum. That is democracy at work and it is right. However, that fact should not deflect us who have been either elected or appointed to the 24th Seanad from doing our very best to make the workings of this House relevant to the people.
I have no sense of being on death row. To succumb to that would only lead to paralysis and I am too much of an optimist for that. I support this motion and, in that context, will speak briefly about the coming decade of sensitive centenaries, of which there are many examples. In 1912, the Balmoral review took place in response to the third Home Rule Bill and the Ulster Covenant was signed. In 1913, the great lock-out took place. In 1914 came the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the landing of arms at Donaghadee and Larne. The Easter Rising took place in 1916, followed by the executions, and the battle of the Somme occurred. In 1918 the general election took place. The First Dáil sat in 1919 and the War of Independence began. In 1920 the Government of Ireland Act was passed. The first Northern Ireland Parliament sat in 1921, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed.
It is incumbent on us all, North and South, Unionist and Nationalist, loyalist and republican, to find a collective way to manage the celebration of the events surrounding these centenaries in such a way as to add value to the peace process rather than subtract from it. Undoubtedly, these centenaries present an enormous challenge but, if conducted sensitively, they have the potential to consolidate the peace process fully and give a very precious legacy from this generation to those who will come after us. The first of the centenaries will take place next year and the ways in which it and those following immediately after are celebrated will set the tone for the rest. As the Bishop of Cork, Paul Colton, stated recently, a broad and generous perspective needs to be taken in commemorating the full spectrum of these centenaries.
Good work has been done in the past 18 months by the Ulster centenary committee which has linked into work already under way in the Department of the Taoiseach. However, that work would benefit from additional input from the Nationalist-republican tradition, particularly in Northern Ireland, and from within loyalism. For the decade of centenaries to enhance relationships on this island, there is a need for an integrated approach, considerable mutual generosity and full acknowledgment of parity of esteem.
This Chamber can have a role in, first, promoting a general awareness of the sensitivities of these centenaries and, second, supporting and encouraging those who will play crucial roles in ensuring the related celebrations consolidate peace and reconciliation between the two traditions on this island, the Unionist and the Nationalist. To that end, this House could be briefed by, for example, the likes of the chair of the Somme Association and by reputable historians who have a particular interest in the history of this period which would put this Chamber in a very strong and informed position to make its own contribution to the success of these celebrations and to engage confidently with those who are pivotal in ensuring that success.
I thank Senator McAleese for giving me so much of his time. We Independents brought our motion to the Chamber today. I have listened to many, beautiful, eloquent speeches from other Senators but I wish to speak only on our motion because I see things very simply. I come from the business community and have no political leanings either way. I am a total Independent.
I hear fearful talks about receivership and other matters such as the abolition of the Seanad. Like Senator McAleese, I do not wish to be paralysed and believe we must take action. We Independents thought very carefully about introducing this motion. To me, it seems a very simple action. I welcome that Senator Cummins said about his amendment that the issue would be dealt with in a very timely manner because when I drove to Dublin this afternoon to attend the Chamber, my heart sank at the sight of the amendment. I read "that these proposals be considered by the Committee on Procedure and Privileges at the earliest opportunity" and when I saw "considered" I thought to myself, they are just going to put it up on the old shelf. I thank Senator Cummins because I was very comforted to know it will be dealt with in a timely manner.
I am in business and things are really tough. I was in the Westbury Hotel yesterday with 160 companies belonging to KPMG. Matters are just as bad as they were in 2008 in many ways but we are all very positive and are working hard. Change is very difficult for us who work in business but we must push through the same change in this House. Let us try. For fun, let us pretend we wish to discuss retailing and supermarkets. Senator Quinn spoke earlier. I agree with Senator Mary White about the bit of housekeeping. If we are debating, is it possible that people might not leave? It is very difficult to talk to people who are not present. I have enormous respect for Senator Quinn, who is a brilliant man and globally brilliant on retail. I reiterate may point. Let us say we wished to have a debate next week on retailing and supermarkets. We could invite Mr. Terry Leahy and Senator Quinn to speak, for 20 minutes only, followed by questions and answers for 12 minutes. It would not waste a great deal of time. We 60 Senators could get the most expert people one could imagine rather than oblige a poor committee to sit repeatedly, see if it could invite such people and, if it could, prepare a report with its interpretation of what the experts had said. That is all we propose. We want to keep it simple. We do not want to upset anyone or waste any time.
I welcome this opportunity. It is the ninth year in which I have made similar points. I congratulate the Senators who introduced the motion. It is impossible for me not to agree entirely with the previous speaker because I, too, saw the motion was to be adjusted and understood this was the ninth year in which we have made many of the same points. As Senator Ó Murchú stated, the Committee on Procedure and Privileges may need to reform in regard to how it considers these issues. There is nothing to disagree with in the motion. It does not take from the initiative of the Independent Senators to point out there have been many like it over the years which were stifled. Senator White pointed out it was not the fault of Senators that work has not been done.
In my experience in the Seanad, we have all spoken openly throughout this time on different aspects of legislation and then voted, the Whip having taken a very different line on issues from that of the party or the Government. That is the strength of the Seanad. I shall return to the issue of the Whip presently. It is the political hierarchy within all parties that is to blame for the fact that the Seanad has never been reformed. It is disgraceful in the extreme that the seventh amendment to the Constitution, made in 1979, has never been implemented. We have seen various reports throughout the years and Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party in Government absolutely share the blame for ensuring we have maintained the status quo in this House. They have abused it as merely the safety net for the also rans or the breaking ground for new talent. I am a product of that system in that I contested the general election, was not elected and I am back again in the House. That being given, in the eight years since I was elected on the industrial and commercial panel, I have been acutely aware of my vocational responsibility. My background is exclusively in representative work with the Chambers of Commerce of Ireland movement and others, and I always try to reflect that in the legislation.
Over the years, great proposals such as this one that were cost neutral to implement have been becalmed. The hierarchy of the political parties and the Government of the day stifled progress. Therein lies the difficulty. If a meaningful proposal to have a person come to the Seanad is agreed by all Members and goes before the CPP, the Cabinet of the day will not allow it if is politically insensitive. There is no Senator, current or former, who would disagree that is the problem. The Whip should not apply in here, there should be a free vote on every issue because we cannot block legislation, only delay it for a period and highlight to the nation that a Bill requires a longer period of reflection.
There are many great proposals on how we could do business better. If the public was truly informed of how well it is being done as it is, they would have more confidence in the political system as a whole. Senator Bacik mentioned the 1,900 amendments to legislation, with one of the higher profile changes being that on discrimination on age. There were many others. The NAMA legislation debate in this House led to several adjustments in the Dáil. The late Brian Lenihan would have acknowledged that. If there is a challenge to us, it is to convince the Government. There is no better man to do that than the Leader of the House and, from working with him, I know he believes in the work of the Seanad and what it can do.
Legislation has just been passed that was initiated in this House, pioneered through the leadership and guidance of Senator Ivana Bacik, although she would acknowledge that it was started by the previous Government. There was not a single media representative here. I do not recall the debate being recorded in any medium of the media. I used to joke that to get on "Oireachtas Report" one had to be gay, a former president of ICTU or a Sunday Independent journalist. That was often not far from the truth, as I am sure other Senators will acknowledge.
If we have a referendum I presume there will be an independent referendum commission that must ensure both sides of the argument are put forward. It would be disingenuous when we come to that stage if the question is merely if we should abolish the Seanad. That would be wrong. There must be a broader debate about the wording of the proposal and what a reformed Seanad could look like. We should look at the work of the Seanad to date.
I have a lot of proposals for Seanad reform. The motion deals specifically with a few that could be easily implemented and I hope the CPP and the intentions of Senators are not stifled by the Cabinet of the day, as so often happened in the past, regardless of who was in government.
I would like to see all public appointments scrutinised by the Seanad in order that there is a new head of a semi-State body, he or she would come in here for five or ten minutes and make a presentation, as happens with Commissioners in the European Parliament. That would bring people closer to their State agencies. The scrutiny of EU legislation, in my experience, is lip service. One of the positives of the Lisbon treaty was the establishment of an embryonic stage for legislation where it is kicked back to member states to consider and this is the appropriate forum for that. If there is a proposed directive, we should bring in the stakeholders in order that we then can tell Ministers and MEPs the Irish views on the proposal rather than it being conjured up in the bowels of Government Buildings, with none of us knowing anything about it until we read about it.
We might have more detailed debates on actual proposals. I support this motion and implore the committee to honour it and ensure it is done. Everyone on this side of the House wants to see that. The Seanad has a great future and while I can understand populist statements being made in the thrust of an election campaign, when people play the man and not the ball, I cannot understand why the Taoiseach had to bring a pickaxe to the pitch. We must believe in the potential of this House, the value for money it genuinely offers, however many millions of euro it costs compared with the HSE, which will cost €14.3 billion this year. Will this be better? I have no doubt this will be the best Seanad, I have also no doubt it will not be the last. I will personally campaign vigorously to ensure it is not, in the interests of the people.
This is an important motion on a small change that can and will be accommodated in an effort to make this House more relevant to the general public, to those who elected us and for those who have been appointed to this House.
I would not like to see the choice being between abolition or retention of the Seanad, the question should be asked in the context of the total reform of our politics. The Dáil must be reduced in numbers. As an elected representative in a constituency with two Senators, five Deputies and seven councillors, I went to a public meeting last October and every Oireachtas representative and councillor was at the meeting which was attended by ten members of the public. There must be change. I was a local authority member and local authorities play an important role, they are connected to the people. Last Monday, there were council meetings up and down the country. No one really knows what went on at them, unless the media happened to report them, but important business was being done by people representing their constituents and trying to improve their lot. Democracy is important. In this House we represent those who have elected us and those who have been nominated to the House have a responsibility to speak on issues they feel are of concern to their constituency.
If we go back to basics, the primary function of this House is to scrutinise legislation. The other issues are important, such as inviting representatives to speak on issues of concern, but scrutiny is our main function. Today we discussed the Finance Bill and the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill. That is important business, and as long as this Dáil lasts, that will continue to be the business of this Seanad. The introduction to the programme for Government states that by the end of the term in government, Ireland will be recognised as a modern, fair, socially inclusive and equal society supported by a productive and prosperous economy. This House will have an important role to play in the delivery of that ambition.
We must bear in mind there is a record of everything that is said in this House and that record will be there in 20 or 50 years. When I was writing my speaking notes today, I was listening to an interview on "Drivetime" with Mary Raftery about the Magdalene laundries and there were references to the debates in this House and the Dáil at the time. What we say will be revisited in future to see what the issues of concern were. Reform of the Seanad and our contributions during this debate and the course of this Seanad will be noted.
This term in the Seanad will be important and I have no doubt changes will result from the convention on the Constitution to which the Minister referred and the referendum. Change is always for the better. If we do not change, we will always get the same results. Is that what we want? I favour reform, as we must move forward, but it must be done in the context of reform of the Dáil and the Seanad, as well as local government, as a strengthened local government system could play a very important role.
A point that should have been made concerns the importance of the role of the committees. The Leader will announce the membership of the committees tomorrow and they will then be established. They provide a forum for witnesses to answer questions from members, but they do not receive the media attention they deserve. We must take the business of Parliament seriously. The record will show that worthy contributions are made by Oireachtas Members from all sides.
The debate on the motion will be resumed and brought to a conclusion on Tuesday next. I hope we will see action being taken on the motion.
The rota will resume from where it finished today.